For Professionals

Child Abuse – A Historical Perspective
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The approach of ancient civilisations to child-parent relationships developed with the fundamental understanding that a parent, usually the father, would have complete autonomy over their child, regardless of the child’s age.

For example, in the State of Rome, from the second to first century BC to around 235 AD, the paterfamilias, the oldest living males in the household, had complete control on their children. Only they could decide whether or not a child lived or died, was sold into slavery, or abandoned.

In Babylonian law, ‘disobedient children’ were very harshly punished: “If a son strikes his father, his hands shall be hewn off”. If an adopted child said to his adoptive father or mother: "You are not my father, or my mother," his tongue would be cut off.

However, civilisations from Ancient History started to protect vulnerable children by establishing a no-tolerance policy to child abuse. For example, during the birth of the Roman Empire, a father’s autonomy over his child was no longer absolute. In IV Century AD, Constantine the Great introduced a reform which took away the paterfamilias’ right to decide whether or not their children lived or died. Moreover, children could only be abandoned if they had hereditary defects. Killing a child became punishable by death. At the same time, the introduction of a new law gave the state the power to free a child from patria potestas, the power of the male head of a family. As a result, the family’s control on a child became significantly less patriarchal in nature.

In XVIII Century BC, the Babylonian King Hammurabi created The Code of Hammurabi, which was in force for a thousand and five hundred years throughout the empire. According to The Code of Hammurabi, people’s health, well-being and children were protected above proprietary rights. A person’s life was deemed to be less worthy if he did not have a few children. Kidnapping and exchanging children was harshly punished: “if one should steal another’s son, he shall be killed and buried without a ritual”.

Laws protecting children from abuse were often created in response to widespread abuse and its damaging consequences, although legislative measures themselves often targeted particular forms of child cruelty or abuse. For example, in the first half of the thirteenth century, King Edward I of England introduced the Statute of Winchester, which made it illegal for women to sleep in the same bed as their toddlers. Those who broke the law were heavily fined. This law was introduced in response to a high number of children dying by being accidentally suffocated in their sleep by their mothers.

In 1874, the issue of child abuse was put under the spotlight when it was discovered that Mary Ellen, a child in New York, was being physically abused by her foster parents, who hit her, tied her to the bed and deprived her of food. The police forces in New York could not interfere as child protection laws did not exist. There were, however, laws in place to protect domestic animals. As such, it was only possible to protect Mary Ellen from abuse after the law afforded the same level of protection to children as it did to animals. In fact, it was Henry Bergh, the influential founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who in 1875 created The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children – the world’s first entity devoted entirely to child protection.

Later on, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was founded in Great Britain. Today, the society has a significant number of branches, and the role it plays in detecting and stopping child abuse is as important as that of the government and municipal bodies.

Whilst child cruelty has shocked and disturbed our society for hundreds of years, the issue has not been widely addressed. An important breakthrough in changing societal attitudes towards child abuse was achieved by Henry Kempe. In 1961, he presented the findings of his ground-breaking study, giving birth to the term ‘Battered-Child Syndrome’, which described the injuries sustained by a child as a result of physical abuse.

It can be said that nowadays, in most countries of the world, scientists and practitioners recognise the child abuse and neglect phenomenon as a complex problem, which needs to be solved through the united efforts of professionals from different fields, parents, and the society as a whole. However, it must be noted that in many countries, effective measures to protect children from all types of abuse have not been put in place. The most significant barrier to stopping abuse and ensuring that its victims are provided with adequate help is our society’s failure to acknowledge and address the prevalent issues around them.


By Public Health Foundation of Georgia (PHF)